Giving Trees

Maine’s high volunteer rate has been slipping in the past several years. How can we turn this trend around? Meet the generous individuals who are working to better public life through nonprofit work.

We often talk as though we were trees: we say that we’re putting down roots or we’re reaching for the sky. But if people are trees, then I prefer to think that we are aspen groves rather than our state-endorsed pine. In Maine, we are all connected. It may not be immediately obvious, but below the surface our lives intertwine. A positive change, like the coming of spring, can sweep through us together. Uplifting one, uplifting all.

But the same can be true of negative forces. Cancer, for instance, is a disease with “long arms,” in the words of Julie Marchese, founder of Tri for a Cure. “We’ve all been touched by cancer, and once you are, it’s impossible to forget. It’s a huge, life-changing event that effects everyone surrounding it.” Cancer can blaze through a body and then through the community, hurting first the people diagnosed and later their loved ones, coworkers, friends, and families. In the face of something so powerful, it’s not uncommon to feel impotent and small.

“One in four Mainers will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime,” says Cullen McGough, communications director for the Maine Cancer Foundation. Tri for a Cure is the organization’s largest fundraising event and a huge boon to the organization. Last year, the one-day race brought in over 1.5 million dollars, which was funneled into cancer research and patient care. “When most people find out that a loved one has cancer, they want to act. They want to grab something by the throat and shake it, but they can’t. It leaves people feeling at a loss and disempowered,” says McGough. “What Tri for a Cure does is give people a chance to be proactive and positive about this big scary thing that has entered their lives.”

Like many people reading this, my life has been changed by cancer. My fiancé is currently recovering from lymphoma. I know how weak you can feel in the face of illness. I know how misery spreads, hopping from one person to the next. I also know how much community matters. When something horrible happens—whether it’s cancer or a car accident—we need those around us to lift us up. In Maine, a state where people are geographically scattered and have “a lot of time but not a lot of money,” as McGough puts it, we need to rely on each other. “Eventually that ice storm is going to hit,” says McGough. “The winter blizzard will come, and you’ll need your neighbors. There’s a strong spirit of self- reliance in our state, but also of community reliance. Very few of us are truly an island.”

If we can’t be islands, then let’s instead be aspens. There’s nothing that combats the feeling of smallness quite like getting in touch with the larger community. Giving back can sound like a trite phrase, but it’s used frequently for a reason. It captures the numerous ways that we can help others, whether it is through donating money, skills, or just plain old elbow grease. For many nonprofits and charitable organizations, volunteers are the glue that holds it all together.

Dot Foote’s office is located in an old white building surrounded by the rolling hills of New Gloucester. The Wayfinder Schools campus is beautiful in a way that many high schools, with their industrial brick buildings and manicured lawns, are not. These superficial differences are not the only thing that sets Wayfinder apart from your average high school. This unique nonprofit organization is dedicated to helping high school dropouts return to school and earn their degrees. This may sound like a singular problem, specific to only the students from Wayfinder, but Foote explains that this is not the case. “When an individual can’t get their high school diploma, it becomes a public health issue,” she says. “When someone doesn’t graduate high school, they are not very likely to go on to post-secondary education. Their physical health is oftentimes challenged because they’re not likely to have a primary care physician or a dentist. They are more likely to live in poverty.” Furthermore, they are less likely to find steady employment. They are more likely to break the law or to end up incarcerated.

Foote knows better than most how challenging it can be to run a nonprofit in Maine. Wayfinder Schools runs two programs: a residential program on its New Gloucester campus, and a program that sends teachers into the homes of teen parents in Maine to help them achieve the “significant marker of adulthood” that comes with a diploma. Much of the work requires trained teachers with backgrounds in social justice and the specialized skills necessary for working with an underserviced and often disparaged group. However, Wayfinder also uses volunteers—everyday people like you and me—to help with fundraising events and other special projects. “We have to do a dance with our dollars and our resources,” she says. “We have to be extremely creative with our money and stretch it as far as we can.” Fortunately, fellow nonprofits understand the intricate balancing act required by a constrictive budget and are happy to step up and support the efforts of fellow organizations. “Oftentimes, we are able to accomplish our goals by bartering and sharing with others in the nonprofit community,” she reveals. “For instance, the Circus Conservatory recently came to our school and taught our residential students new ways of moving their bodies. In exchange, they used our campus and lived here for a time.” Other nonprofits that have worked with Wayfinder Schools include the Telling Room (which provided writing support), 317 Main (which brought music to the campus), and the YMCA (which allowed students to use its facilities for $5 per month).

Wayfinder Schools also benefits from the support of local businesses, including Maine Media Collective (publisher of this very magazine). Kevin Thomas, president of Maine Media Collective, says that nonprofit involvement was built into his business plan from the very start. “In the early days of MMC, people like Julie Marchese would come to me, people whom I knew from different aspects of my life, and they would talk about their nonprofits,” he recalls. “It struck me right away that we could do more for them than many media partners—that we could really help. That intrigued me, because I knew that if I was going to be in business in Maine, there was a responsibility to give back to the community.” Instead of just trading ad space for logos, Thomas decided he wanted to get his entire staff involved, encouraging his employees to attend nonprofit events, volunteer, and use the various publishing platforms to raise awareness about the issues facing Mainers in their midst. “We want to be involved in an energetic way,” he says. It’s about more than just donating funds; “It’s about showing up.”

While researching this article, it struck me that “showing up” was another way of saying “leaning in,” a CEO-popularized phrase that Foote uses frequently to describe the altruistically oriented lifestyle. For Foote, “leaning in” encompasses many healthy behaviors: “It’s a posture. It’s close listening. It means caring deeply about the dynamics of your relationships as well as the bigger picture of community health. It’s about helping one another out.” A few minutes later, she circles back to the question and says, “Leaning in means staying within the joy of a relationship. It’s about staying even when it’s difficult.”

Similarly, “showing up” is about being present and aware of the people around you. It’s about being open and willing to give whatever you can, and to listen to others. A good community member is someone who leans into her relationships, embracing the good and the bad. It’s someone who shows up when she is needed.

Unfortunately, while Mainers can be very community oriented, some nonprofit leaders have noticed a disturbing shift away from these values. According to the Maine Commission for Community Service, Maine once was sixth in the nation when it came to volunteer hours, but that number has slipped. “We have one of the lowest per capita giving rates in the country,” notes Jan Kearce of Lift360, a Portland- based organization that works to train and identify future leaders in the community. “Fortunately, we make up for our low giving rates by giving time rather than funds. If we think about what’s necessary these days in order for both nonprofits and folks who are involved in delivering in a social mission, volunteerism is critical.”

Maryalice Crofton, executive director of the Maine Commission for Community Service, says that the decline of volunteerism is something their organization seeks to address. “While we are still twelfth in the nation for volunteerism, we have slipped in the last 10 years. The average number of hours per volunteer has declined by almost 10 hours. This can have a tremendous impact on the number of available hours of support for achieving vital missions,” she explains. “Add to this mix the changing demographics in our state—younger volunteers tend to want volunteer assignments with a clear beginning and end, like a project or an event, as well as flexible scheduling. Does this mean we will have to rethink the way we use volunteers? We think so.” To combat this, the MCCS is hosting Train the Trainer sessions designed to help Maine catch up with more cutting-edge volunteer practices. They want to make volunteering more easy, attractive, and most importantly, more common.

The relationship between organizations that serve the community and the community itself is a symbiotic one. These nonprofits help others, but they need  help to do so. In a time when people are increasingly disconnected from neighbors, how do we encourage local involvement?

The answer was the same, no matter with whom I spoke: we need to share stories. Awareness of an issue is the first step in mobilizing volunteers, but it’s not enough to simply be aware that there’s a problem. Most people need to feel an emotional connection. “Intellectually, people might know that the work of these organizations is important. But how can we make them feel that?” asks Julie Marchese. The question is rhetorical. “We need to give both numbers and narratives,” she says. At Tri for a Cure, Marchese seeks to combine research and data with compelling stories that will engage listeners. Often, these stories center around the organization’s achievements. “[Prospective volunteers] need to know how the work of nonprofits affects people on a deep level. The data show that in order to get people to engage and give, we need to give people the narrative. They need the story behind it, in addition to the hard facts.” And this tactic works. When asked what led him to become involved with so many nonprofits on a professional level, Thomas replies simply: “I was intrigued by the stories.” He goes on to recall the first time he met John Woods of Share Our Strength Maine (Maine Media Collective’s charitable partner for the annual Kennebunkport Festival). “It was absolutely clear how committed he was to ending childhood hunger. It was impossible for me to say no to him. I had to help in whatever way I could.”

Not only do these stories bring people in, they also create new communities of survivors, volunteers, and friends. LifeFlight of Maine, an organization that provides emergency airlifts to patients in critical condition, makes a point of staying in contact with its patients. “We try to create a community around LifeFlight where people feel engaged, as though they are a part of something larger,” says Melissa Arndt, communications director at LifeFlight. She says that most people have very happy and positive associations with LifeFlight, although the actual day they were lifted was likely to have been “difficult and intense, sometimes the worst day of their lives.”

“By nature, people who go through something so difficult want to reach out and make connections with others who understand what they went through,” says Arndt. “It’s a natural thing to want to come together around an issue that impacted your life. Most people don’t want to just write a check at home. They want to take part in an event, to be around others who share their experiences.” In this way, an event can be very important not only on the fundraising front, but also for the people it serves. It creates a space where stories can be shared, compassion can be given and received, and meaningful relationships can form.

“In life, you have to look for the good,” says Marchese. “That’s why people come to Tri for a Cure. Because the day feels like a celebration. It’s not about the race, exactly. It’s about raising money for a cause and cheering everyone on. It’s about being rewarded for your efforts.” Handing out cups of water or waving a flag to direct runners may not sound like a significant act, but come race day, it certainly feels like it. For the volunteers at Tri for a Cure—or the volunteers who raise money for LifeFlight, or awareness for Wayfinder Schools, or funds for Share Our Strength— it’s not about effecting immediate change. It’s about being a part of something larger, something even more powerful than the long grasping arms and cruel reach of misfortune. It’s about fighting as one, growing as one, and stretching hopefully towards the sky.